Shadow Boxing

A blog that probes the mind's dark secrets

Mur-dar, the Dark Side of the Sixth Sense

Some killers have a special instinct for like-minded accomplices.

A British jury is still deliberating about the fate of two accomplices of admitted serial killer Joanna Dennehy. They helped her to dispose of bodies (and also posed in those selfies she took), but they claim they acted under duress. They were afraid, they now say, that if they didn’t do what she wanted, they would be her next victims. They also face two counts of attempted murder.

Gary “Stretch” Richards and Leslie Layton accompanied Dennehy as she looked for male victims, killed them, and transported their bodies to be dumped. They did nothing to stop her or turn her in. The prosecution insists they participated willingly.

However, the defense team says that Dennehy had a peculiar way of influencing these men. She was compared to a "Shakespearean villain," who could bend others to her will. The attorney stated that killers like Dennehy surround themselves with weak people who are easy to manipulate.

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In a recent conversation about killing teams like this, my colleague Gregg McCrary, a former FBI profiler, commented, “I'm always amazed at how these people vector in on each other. There's radar, gaydar and maybe mur-dar.”

He’s right. That’s how it happens. Psychopathic types (Dennehy’s diagnosis) have an instinct for malleable people that they can manipulate with fear, forcefulness, and sex. She easily intimidated others, often with violent threats, and she was loud and aggressive. Since she was a killer, anyone she threatened might believe she’d make good on it.

Another case of “mur-dar” murder occurred last November in Pennsylvania. Elytte and Miranda Barbour, married just three weeks, used a Craigslist ad to lure a man to his death. Miranda offered “companionship” for a fee – something she supposedly did on a regular basis. Only this time, she had something else in mind. She and Elytte wanted to kill someone for kicks.

Troy LeFerrara, 42, responded to the ad.

Elytte, 22, hid under a blanket in the back seat of their SUV as Miranda, 18, drove to a mall to pick up their victim. Once LeFerrara was inside and they were in a secluded spot, Elytte used a cord to incapacitate him while Miranda stabbed him over and over – some 20 times. He was still alive when they dumped his body in an alley. Then they cleaned up the SUV and went to a strip club to celebrate Elytte’s birthday.

The two were caught because their call was the last one made to the victim’s cell phone. Although Miranda had a story about self-defense, it soon fell apart. Elytte admitted to police what they'd done.

From post-arrest reports, we know that members of killing teams say that soon after meeting, they'd both sensed the potential for a dark partnership and had moved eagerly toward it. Either they'd felt a strong romantic attraction or they'd quickly established an intimate familiarity that allowed them to broach the subject of violent fantasies. The emotional tone of these relationships is generally established from the start.

Mental health experts who’ve studied criminal collaborations indicate that if one is psychologically dominating, the other is usually easy to manipulate and may even be mentally ill. Among the mental disorders frequently attributed to the weaker partner is schizotypal personality disorder – a malleable, superstitious person with emotional instability.

There are also dependent personalities who dislike isolation and will do anything to keep a relationship intact. In addition, sometimes two psychopaths meet and look for an added thrill from acting out together.

No matter what the jury decides for Stretch and Layton, even if the men who ran with Dennehy were afraid, they could have overpowered her. Stretch was over seven feet tall! His story about being scared might have some truth, but it’s probably not the whole story. More likely, Dennehy sensed that, like her, Stretch and Leyton had a collapsible (or absent) moral center and would do whatever she asked.

That’s how mur-dar works. Had they not been caught, there would probably be more victims. Dennehy knew how to pick 'em.

Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D., an expert on murder and other shadow themes, teaches forensic psychology and has published 46 books.

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